BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Martin Gilbert, author of "Churchill: A Life", what's your favorite story about Winston Churchill?
MARTIN GILBERT, AUTHOR, "CHURCHILL: A LIFE": I have so many of them. There's always one for each occasion. My favorite story is, the cover you are holding up, this picture was suppressed 43 years. It was taken when Churchill was in the middle of the Second World War. He was feeling confident because he'd just won Roosevelt's support for the war effort in Europe, he'd won the Canadian parliament round, and he was stopped by a photographer in the corridor who took that lovely picture. The photographer was dissatisfied and Churchill put his cigar in his mouth and starting lighting up. The photographer grabbed the cigar and got the famous frowning, disagreeable Churchill who's graced every postage stamp and every other book cover and for which millions, incidentally, have been made in photographic fees, and it's not the real Churchill. I mean, you know, if I was to punch you in the face and they took it, whoever saw you like that except me. And so my favorite picture is this one of the real Churchill.
LAMB: How did you get it for the cover?
GILBERT: I was promoting the English edition of the book in Canada in May and found that on my floor of the hotel where the publishers had put me was the studio of this photographer, by sheer chance. I didn't even know he was still alive. I knocked on his door, walked in -- it was a ding! like going into a haberdasher's shop -- and I took it from there. By a combination of chance and ingenuity I acquired the picture.
LAMB: It's interesting. If you put an English version of the book out it goes to Canada instead of the American version going to Canada?
GILBERT: Right. I know I was pleased because it's the real Churchill. One of my aims in the book was to get rid of all these myths and carbuncles -- you know, the warmonger, the disagreeable man, the imperialist with no vision. So I thought the cover should reflect that.
LAMB: Did you spend much time around Winston Churchill?
GILBERT: In 1961, which is exactly 30 years ago, when I was a young kid of 25, I was asked by his son to join a team -- rather a chaotic team -- of people who were trying to help Randolph, his son, in preparing this great multi-volume book, and that's where I really learned my trade. I was the one who had to go through the original papers and bring them to Randolph -- my section of the history. And there I was, touching his letters, finding his school reports, sometimes even opening envelopes that had been sealed in 1894 or 1895. And so, in a way, from that moment for 30 years he was with me, I suppose, every day of my life, though I never smoked a cigar.
LAMB: What year did he die?
GILBERT: He died in 1965, three years after I started work for Randolph. I was actually over here, then, in the States. I had a wonderful discovery -- it really gave me Randolph's confidence; it put me even deeper into the Churchill story. I went to the New York Public Library and I knew that Churchill had had a friendship with an American Tammany Hall boss in New York. I asked to see the Churchill file in that man's papers. He was called Bourke Cockran. They said, "Oh, we're terribly sorry. We only have the letters from the American novelist Winston Churchill," who was such a person. It was so cold outside that day I said, "Well, all right, let me look at those," and they turned out to be all the letters from my Winston Churchill. They'd been misfiled. They included a letter he'd written from prison camp on his 25th birthday -- a long, fascinating letter.
So from that moment Randolph thought I was a genius, though all it was was misfiling. I used to go from archive to archive. I met all his old girlfriends, the girls he proposed to who turned him down, and the girls who'd wanted him to marry them and who he'd turned down, including the girl who was so angry he didn't want to marry her that she said, "You know, Winston, all you men are the same. You are absolutely rotten." And he said, "You are quite right. We're all worms, but I do believe I'm a glowworm."
LAMB: To be honest with you, it's hard to know where to start, but let me start with you. Have you been known as the official biographer?
GILBERT: I'm called the official biographer, though to the enormous credit of the Churchill family they've never asked to see a single word of what I was writing until the books were printed and bound and ready for sale to the public. They never asked me to delete a word or to skirt around a particular issue. So "official" is a misnomer if it's thought to mean a censored or restricted biographer.
LAMB: What does it mean to be the official biographer?
GILBERT: It means some poor sod had to be willing to give 30 years of his working life, give up his university teaching, give up his lecturing, give up the amenities of being, as it were, a clubbable don on an Oxford University high table, and be willing to sit in archives, which I enjoy. I don't complain about one moment. But basically it meant someone who would do it full-time, day after day for 30 years.
LAMB: What part of Winston Churchill do you enjoy researching the most? What I mean by that is, he was an artist, he was an orator, he was a writer, he was a statesman, he was a leader. What part got most of your attention?
GILBERT: I think the thing which fascinated me most was his work as a parliamentarian. He entered Parliament in 1900. He was very young. He was just 25 years old, and he spent the next 55 years in the Parliament. He made that his life. He wrote every single one of his parliamentary speeches.
Nowadays it's quite rare, as you know, for a leading figure to write his speeches. He might correct what his speechwriters write. He not only wrote them, but he rewrote them. He worked on them. It's a common misconception that he just sort of used words in an airy, fairy way; I mean, the famous phrase by J. F. Kennedy, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle," was true but he used language for argument, to lead the House of Commons again and again on thousands of occasions through a complicated and unpopular argument. He was arguing, for example, for something you've got here in the United States since 1933, a minimum wage, which our government still resists. He presented that to the British Parliament for an hour and a half in great and careful detail. So that really is fascinating. How did this man take an unpopular cause and persuade a basically often hostile House of Commons to accept the rightness and logic of it, because he was never a dictator. He could never pound the table and say, "We'll do it." Everything depended on the votes of the House of Commons.
LAMB: And the years he lived; from when to when?
GILBERT: He was born in 1874 and he died in 1965, so it was a long life. He passed his 90th birthday. The first president whom he met was McKinley, and he fortunately also met McKinley's vice president, Teddy Roosevelt, because shortly after he met McKinley, McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt became president. And he knew Woodrow Wilson well and had many debates with him over whether the Bolsheviks should be contained by the allies in 1918 or whether they should be allowed to stew in their own juice. Churchill believed that the anti-Bolshevik Russians should be assisted to overthrow Bolshevism, and Woodrow Wilson declined. He knew Franklin Roosevelt extremely well -- they were the war leaders of World War II -- and he knew Truman and greatly respected Truman. He was, in a way, the encourager of what became the Truman Doctrine in foreign affairs. He encouraged America to emerge as a world leader, and Eisenhower was somebody with whom he had, when Eisenhower was president, a most incredible conflict. It wasn't personally violent, but it was almost disastrous for Churchill.
Churchill wanted, when Stalin died, to go with Eisenhower to Moscow and meet Stalin's successors in Moscow. And so, "Right. Now we can end the Cold War. We are strong -- we have the nuclear capacity -- but we wish to be on good terms with you. We wish to help your economy in return for you moderating your dictatorship." He said, "Let's at least go to Moscow," and Eisenhower refused and very much humiliated Churchill, both to Churchill's cabinet and also in the international discussions. Churchill never left it alone. For four years he kept coming back to it, pleading with Ike, "Let us try and break the Cold War," but it was the wrong time in American politics, and in the end it was Reagan and Gorbachev and Bush and Gorbachev and Thatcher and Major who did what he had pleaded with Ike to do.
LAMB: You say 55 years -- did he spend all of that time in Parliament? Was he there all of those years?
GILBERT: He only had a year and a half out of Parliament, and that was in 1922 when he had to fight an election but he'd just had his appendix out. He used to joke, "At one stoke I lost my place in the government, my seat in Parliament and my appendix." All three had gone. But he came back after a year and a half, and even in the famous wilderness years when there's a misconception, actually, in America that he was alone. In fact, there's even a book come out -- I can't think of the author -- that says, "Lion alone." He was never alone in the wilderness years. He had an enormous following in Parliament, in the government circles, in the civil service and among the public who realized that his warnings that Hitler did have to be confronted if war was to be avoided -- Hitler had to be told, "Look, thus far, no further" -- he was always in Parliament during those wilderness years.
So he always had his place. He was actually on the front bench, which your viewers know from the British Parliament is quite a powerful place to be. And so his was always a voice within the Parliamentary system. He was never really out of it. Of course, Churchill out of office was a man who went down to his country house, Chartwell in Kent, and had around him probably more cabinet ministers and government officials than sat around the cabinet table. I mean, he was a magnet. He was fun. He was fun to be with. He was interesting. When he was serious, it was something worth being present at, and so people flocked to him almost like moths to a lamp.
LAMB: He married how many times?
GILBERT: Only once. He was in love with a beautiful girl whom he met in India. He went riding on elephants in his youth around the city of Hyderabad in southern India, but she somehow wasn't quite for him. Then he met a pretty girl and hardly noticed her at dinner. At the end of the dinner he said, "I'm sorry I didn't talk to you, but I've written a book about my father. May I send it to you?" She said yes; she rather liked him. And she never heard again from him. That was a girl called Clementine. They met four years later. He had forgotten the promise which he had given of sending the book, and he fell in love with her and proposed to her. Even then, he was totally indecisive.
We think of him as a man who knew what he wanted and went out to get it. He wanted to marry her, but he didn't know to do it. He invited her to Blenheim where his family lived, and they spent the weekend together and his cousin noticed he wasn't popping the question. He wasn't asking her. On the final morning when she was due to go to London, he was lying in bed and his cousin the duke went into his bedroom and said, "Winston, you've got to get out of bed." He hated getting out of bed in the morning. "You've got to get out of bed and propose." So finally he got out; he went into the garden. He couldn't bring himself to do it. It came on to rain. The two of them went for shelter into a little ornamental temple, and there he finally said, "Will you marry me?" and she said yes.
And from that moment he had nobody else in his life. She was a wonderful woman, not because she was somehow just ornamental, but as you'll see from the book, whenever she felt he was going wrong, whenever she felt his character was about to disintegrate a little bit or he was becoming a little rough, she would send him notes, beautifully written notes. "Winston, you're not doing the right thing. Don't do this," and written with love but also with great firmness. So she was more than just an ornament, really.
LAMB: They were married for how long?
GILBERT: They were married in 1908, and when he died in 1965 they were still married.
LAMB: And they had how many children?
GILBERT: They had five children, one who died as a little child with meningitis before she was three, which was a sad episode in their lives. The had a son, Randolph, whom I worked for who was wonderfully rambunctious, and they had a wonderful family life. Churchill belonged to that generation -- perhaps it's almost gone now -- who believed the family should always be there. I mean, if a prime minister was coming to tea or a secretary of state was coming to dinner, you had your family around the table and you didn't inhibit the talk. Indeed if the family was young, as Churchill's family were, of course, when they were young, you had games. You had a lovely game which you played, "The blue cat." The next person said, "The bright cat." The next one said, "The bold cat," "the brave cat."
You tried to exhaust the adjectives beginning with B. If there was a secretary of state or somebody there, he was invited to join in. In this way the children grew up surrounded by the most marvelous politics and humor. Sometimes they had awful rows. On one occasion Churchill was sort of laying down the law about something, and suddenly Randolph began to lay down the law. Churchill looked at him and said, "Stop interrupting me when I'm interrupting!" But they enjoyed themselves, and animals were part of the show. There were lots of cats and lots of dogs. In fact, he was always thought of as the bulldog in British history, and I discovered that when he was a schoolboy at the age of 11 -- I put it in the book, it was so nice -- he sold his bicycle in order to have enough money to buy a bulldog.
LAMB: There are some direct American connections. His mother?
GILBERT: His mother was born in Brooklyn. There was a little flat that she was born in on Henry Street. She was raised in Rochester. He always used to say of himself, "I'm half American and wholly British." His enemies said of him, "You're half alien and wholly reprehensible." He once used his mother's American connections. He wanted in 1941 in the spring to broadcast to the American people to try to explain to them why Britain was at war and why sooner or later the United States would find itself in this war. Clearly, he couldn't do this officially. Roosevelt, you know, couldn't challenge the isolationists by such a method or it would have been awful politically. So the two of them arranged -- they were great conspirators together in the interests of democracy and defeating tyranny -- they arranged for the president of the University of Rochester to invite Churchill to get an honorary degree because it was where his mother grew up. And, of course, he couldn't come over in the war with battle in the Atlantic. So he said, "I'll tell you what, why don't I broadcast my acceptance."
Well, of course, once you broadcasting across the Atlantic, it can be picked up everywhere from New Orleans to Seattle, and from Bangor to San Diego. And so he made his wonderful broadcast to the Americans, very understanding of the American predicament, not lecturing but saying, "Sooner or later all good forces must confront evil, and when you do it you need to be confident you know why you're doing it and you have to be very strong to face the setbacks that will come along the way."
LAMB: Our viewers, when they watch the British House of Commons, see a Winston Churchill on the floor of the Commons today. Who is he?
GILBERT: That is Churchill's grandson, and indeed there is a nice American connection there because his mother Pamela is Mrs. Pamela Harriman, who lives here in Washington and was at Churchill's side during the Second World War. There are some lovely stories in the book that she recounts. She was often with him late at night when desperate military moves were imminent, and she was one of the people who witnessed in the intimacy of his study just how concerned he was about the fate of those who were inevitably going to die in these assaults. It wasn't for him a game or a statistic. He somehow felt the plight of every soldier, and it was because he had been a young soldier.
His American mother had been given task after task by Churchill, starting with the task, "Get me to London during Queen Victoria's jubilee," in 1887 when he was 12. He didn't want to see the queen; he wanted to see Buffalo Bill Cody with Annie Oakley who were performing at Earls Court with 500 indians and God knows how many buffalos. He instructed his mother later, "Get me to the scene of action. Get me to where the wars are" -- incidentally not to fight. He was a newspaperman. And, of course, a newspaperman, it's no good for Peter Arnett sitting in the Savoy in London. He has to be in Baghdad.
And so Churchill was always saying to his mother, "Get me to the scene of action," and she did. This was her sort of great role. She was the pusher. He once said of her very disarmingly, "My mother left no stone unturned. She left no cutlet uncooked," and indeed she really worked hard to entertain on his behalf. And so he saw war firsthand, thanks to his mother, and he saw the cruelties of war. He was always saying to fellow politicians, "The supreme object of statesmanship is to stop war." In fact, I found something he wrote which moved me very greatly. I've put it in the book. In 1900, after a battle which many British people regard as a great victory in South Africa -- they were excited; the flags went up -- he wrote a journalistic piece about it -- he'd been at the battle -- but he ended his piece, "If modern man that lead it would see the face of war more often, ordinary folk would see it hardly ever."
LAMB: You've got -- this is huge -- 1,066 pages in here, but this is this going to be the final?
GILBERT: This is it, all in one book, from cradle to grave.
LAMB: How many volumes have you written?
GILBERT: I wrote six of the eight volumes of the official narrative, and I produced eight volumes of documents -- his letters and documents. In fact, I'm now doing his war documents. This is everything boiled down to one. It's a sort of, hopefully, delicious consomme of Churchill's life.
LAMB: Ever count the number of words you've written about Winston Churchill?
GILBERT: I never did, but very much to my embarrassment the Guinness Book of World Records did, and they put it in as the longest biography in the English language. But as I'm not a believer that writing has quality because of length, I'm more slightly but not ashamed of it. It's a bit bizarre. It's about eight and a half million. But, you know, I started with 15 tons of weight of his letters and papers, so it had to be constantly reduced and sifted through. I used to even read his laundry lists. People said, "What can you possibly learn from a laundry list? You certainly can't publish laundry lists." But on one occasion I found a laundry list from a Beirut hotel, and I thought to myself that I didn't know Churchill was in Beirut. From that laundry list -- it had a date -- I discovered a journey which was not, as it were, in the history books which he had made to the Middle East -- to Beirut and then to Amman and then to Jerusalem. Then I found British officials, young British officials at the time, who had been there at that year, 1934, and even then acquired some historical documents about his views and thoughts during that visit. So, laundry lists have their uses, too.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
GILBERT: I was born in London. My parents were Londoners, and when I was 2-1/2, the war began. My father was doing war work -- he was doing night work -- and so when I was 3-1/2 I was put on a ship with hundreds of other kids, without my parents, and sent to Canada. Churchill, incidentally, had been against this. He regarded it as a sort of scuttle, and when one of the ships had sunk and many children drowned, he stopped it. So I was there with about 4,000 other kids in Canada. I discovered when I was writing this book that in 1944, just at the time of the Normandy landings, Churchill saw that the Mauritania, a great ocean liner which had been converted to a troop ship, was in New York anchored on the Hudson, and there were only 3,000 troops going back on it to Britain because, of course, the American forces were already over there. So he said, "Why not bring the children back from Canada?" Telegrams were sent, and I was among the children who was rounded up. I was put on the train by myself in Toronto station. One of the most vivid memories of my life is arriving -- I was then 7-1/4 -- at Grand Central Station with a label around my neck, "Grand Central." It still looks a big station, but then for a little boy it was very big.
I remember there were great lines and soldiers and an enormous crowd. I waited patiently. I don't think I cried, and finally someone came and said, "Little boy, come with me." It was a very hot June day in '44, and I was led to the docks. I went back there the day before yesterday to see the pier where we embarked. Then I found in Churchill's papers a little note where he put against the Mauritania file, "Make sure there are enough lifeboats on board for the extra children." Now, that's interesting to me. This man, who then was having to defeat Hitler in Normandy, counter the bombs, deal with the whole problem of defeating Japan, still remembered there were extra kids on the ship and to make sure there are enough lifeboats in case the ship goes down.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
GILBERT: I went to school at Highgate, which is a private school in London. When the war was over, my father brought me back to London. He'd been evacuated himself to North Wales. Suddenly it was the first day of the school terms and Dad had made no arrangements. He had been involved in the war. Many people were in that boat. So he put me in a car with a friend, and we drove around London until he found a school which had a place for one little boy. It was a boarding school. I was then 8-1/2. I went to that school from 1945 until 1954, and then I went into the British Army. When I finished my military duties and my military service, I went off to university. I was somehow a boarder all my life. I was at boarding school; in the army, of course, you're in your barracks, and at Oxford you're -- though very pleasantly -- in the students' lodging at Oxford. I graduated in 1960, and a year later Randolph Churchill said, "Join my team."
LAMB: Do you have any reason to know why he did it? Was there some specific thing that caught his attention and he came to you?
GILBERT: Yes. Immediately after I graduated, I wrote a book with my very first pupil, a marvelous person called Richard Gott who later became a distinguished journalist. We wrote a book called The Appeasers together. We were very excited by it. We were young historians, exposing somehow Neville Chamberlain's -- not just his desire to postpone war, but his desire to get on good terms with Hitler. We found a lot out about that. One of Randolph's friends read it, and she said to Randolph, "You really ought to get this young man and talk to him." She used a lovely phrase in her letter, which he showed me, "He is full of zeal to set history right."
Anyway, he started sending me telegrams. I had heard of him only as a terrible drunk, a right-wing sort of fascist beast -- the portrayal of students of those days -- but finally the head of my college who had actually been Churchill's research assistant in the '30s, '40s and '50s said to me, "Why don't you go? You'll have an amusing evening, you'll have a lot of stories to dine out on, and you'll come back the next morning." Well, I went. I had an amusing and amazing evening, and the next morning instead of coming back, Randolph said to me, "Will you join my team?" and I joined it. I thought I'd last four or five months. I lasted five years. He died. I thought I'd write the biography -- what was left to be done -- in five or six years, and I finished it, a multi-volume, three years ago.
LAMB: Were you around him when he died?
GILBERT: Well, I was actually on holiday when he died. The whole thing was very distressing because in his last months -- Randolph was not well, but he had a wonderful brain. I had a lot of respect for Randolph. He loved history. He was full of zeal for setting it right.
LAMB: You're talking about the son?
GILBERT: The son, right. He once said to me, "You know, Martin, I'm not interested in whitewashing my father. I'm interested in the truth." And he was. There was such a thing as historical truth for him and, indeed, I hope for me. In the last year of his life, the Kennedy family asked him to write the biography of J. F. Kennedy. He was very, very understandably flattered by that and moved by that. And so as well as continuing the Churchill biography in the last year, he became distracted by the challenge of Kennedy. He intended to finish Churchill first; on the other hand, he couldn't quite bring himself not to begin thinking about the Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was the member of the family who'd asked him to do it. In fact, I listened in -- it was my job to listen to the phone conversation -- and Robert Kennedy asked him. Then Robert Kennedy was assassinated and Randolph died within 24 hours.
GILBERT: In 1968, and suddenly the whole pack of cards collapsed. It was a great tragedy. But I respected Randolph Churchill. He wanted to tell his father's story. When I was writing my volumes, and particularly when I was writing this volume, I always thought not only would Winston Churchill feel I was doing it properly, but would Randolph Churchill feel it. When people would say to me, "Oh, he was just an alcoholic" -- there's a new book out about him as an alcoholic and the whole Churchill family as drinkers -- I think that with me we had many long days and nights when his mind was crystal clear and history was what we were doing, and getting his father's story right was what we were about. He told lovely stories about his father, some of which I was able to put in my book. When he told his stories, if I would laugh, he would say, "That's for my book, not your book." Of course, poor Randolph died and the stories ended up in my book.
LAMB: Is there such a thing that's built up over the years as a Martin Gilbert, Inc.? In other words, have you got a big force behind you that helps you do research, and secretaries and . . .
GILBERT: I've always believed in doing it oneself. I've always done all my own research. I was very lucky, indeed, but I always had one person to help me sort the files and go with me to the archives, if only because under the British system one person can only call for three files, but two people can call for six. One of my assistants, Larry Arnn, is now running a policy study unit in Claremont in California. He was extremely good, but unfortunately he fell in love with my secretary, so he married her and she's also in California. And then I got another assistant who came -- this was in 1971 -- and I fell in love with her, so she is now my wife. In fact, she has been ever since my -- we sit together and we read every document together. I, then, write the chapter. She, then, reads it and she says, "Wait a minute. You haven't properly interpreted that document" or "You haven't got the best out of it" or "You've exaggerated what it says." So it's been the two of us. The whole biography I wrote in pen and ink. In fact, this is the pen I wrote the eighth volume with. I was a pen and ink man, and then my wife said, "For this one volume we have to become modern creatures."
LAMB: I just want to see, what kind of a pen is this?
GILBERT: It's called a Pelikan. It's a serviceable ink pen.
LAMB: A British pen?
GILBERT: I think it may be French. I'm not sure. I bought it in San Francisco.
LAMB: And you wrote the entire eighth volume with it?
GILBERT: Yes, with that pen. Then I bought another pen to write this volume with, and my wife said, "Put it away. We have to become modern," and so I acquired a computer. I wrote this on a computer, and I must say I enjoyed it enormously, though I did at one point put in a tease which I forgot to eliminate from the disk. But it's not in the American edition. The British edition has it, but I deleted it from the American edition.
LAMB: This volume costs $35. Do you have any idea, as we sit here, how many of these things you'll sell?
GILBERT: I believe that about 35,000 were sold. It came out on the first of November, so it's had almost a months's run -- three or four weeks now -- and the second reprint is out and, hopefully, third, fourth, fifth reprint if your viewers will rush to buy it. Hopefully, it will go on selling because it is the sole one-volume work which contains his most personal stories, most personal letters. Everybody said, "You'll never do it in one volume." There are many multi-volumes, mostly incomplete, but many people have tried a multi-volume, including myself. You know, the average man in the street can't carry around an eight-volume or even a three-volume set of biography.
LAMB: Can you buy the eight-volume set at one stop?
GILBERT: You can, actually, and it's now come out in England in paperback so it's even physically much more manageable. But my idea was a one-volume. We live in an age where, much as one would like to sit down and read books -- I mean, even I just bought today Carlisle's History of the French Revolution in Georgetown in an abridged version because I wanted to re-read it and I thought I ought to read the three volumes, but you can't. So, here is Churchill in one volume. He fits. There's more to say, but there's so much there. I sometimes go on holiday to a village in the Vaucluse, and the nearest town is called Apt in southern France. And there they have a cake when you're really feeling a bit peckish. It's a sort of fruitcake which only has fruit, if you know what I mean. There's a bit of cake and a lot of fruit. But like to feel this is the book -- it's a fruity book.
LAMB: One more question on the eighth volume. How much would it cost today if you bought all eight volumes? Can you buy it in hardback or is it just paperback?
GILBERT: You can get it in hardback and you can get it in paperback. In paperback, the whole thing would be about 80 pounds or about $120.
LAMB: More than that. It would be $150.
GILBERT: Right, yes. The hardback eight volumes would be more like $220, $230.
LAMB: If Winston Churchill were alive today and lived in this country and had to join an American political party, any idea what he would be, based on what he thought, what he cared about?
GILBERT: Well, he had belonged to both the equivalent of the Democrat and Republican parties. He'd been a Liberal and a Conservative.
LAMB: How many years in each party?
GILBERT: About the same. Twenty very active years as a Liberal and a reformer -- a social reformer and a minimum wage man.
LAMB: At what point in his life?
GILBERT: From the age of 30 to 50.
LAMB: So he started off as a Conservative in the House?
GILBERT: He was briefly Conservative but hated the then class-ridden nature of the Conservative Party, and also he hated its aggressive appearances. So he joined the Liberals and became a great pioneer of social reform. He introduced widows' pensions, orphans' pensions. He introduced the whole system of fair deal at the workplace -- a break for meals even in enterprises. He believed that everybody in their workplace -- the cameraman behind your cameras -- should have a share in the profit of the company. So he was in that sense a radical. Then he became a Conservative in 1924 when he was already 50, and as a Conservative was a very good Conservative. He believed in the defense of the realm as something paramount, and he believed in not groveling to dictators and not getting into bullying internationally. But he wanted what his father had called Tory democracy, a conservatism with a genuinely classless face. It's interesting that John Major, our new -- and in my view, excellent -- Conservative prime minister has spoken of his desire to establish a classless society, which was really what Churchill was struggling for.
As to the parties, he always said, "I belong to both political parties," and then he'd say with a smile, "and I've despised them both equally." My guess is he would join one of the two American parties and try to change it. He would try to change it in the direction he wanted. I've looked at the Democrat and Republican programs, and he had enormous sympathy for things in both of them which essentially -- I mean, he felt the supreme goal of statesmanship was in international affairs to preserve peace but not at all costs, and always preserve peace unless the tyranny or the threat was such that it had to be confronted and had to be defeated, and at home to maintain the genuine unity of the nation. That's to say there should be nobody, whether it was race or economic situation or creed, nobody who had an inferior position in the society. And not for welfare handouts -- he believed in free enterprise -- but that the poorest person should have the opportunity to avail himself of what free enterprise could provide a person.
For that reason, when he was in charge of the prisons as home secretary -- that would be secretary of the interior here -- he fought very hard to give prisoners, people who are convicted criminals, the same opportunities once they were released from prison to rise in society and, indeed, he introduced programs in prisons to enable them when they came out to, as he put it, establish themselves quickly in the world of industry and to be rehabilitated. He even abolished the system whereby the police controlled prisoners once they were released and introduced what we call the probation system where an independent probation service, a non-police service, supervises the prisoners. Incidentally, it was Robert Kennedy who became very interested in Churchill's philosophy of the rights of even a convicted criminal against the state.
In other words, you couldn't push any group of society down and say, "We're not interested in you." He fought very hard, for example, for those who were disabled at work. He believed the state had some sort of obligation and should make some contribution to people like that to enable them to lead a decent life. The other thing which I think is going to be a feature of current politics -- and either the Democrats or the Republicans can grasp it; it's up to their political genius -- he believed that at some point the emphasis in industrial societies must move from hours of work, which in his day he progressively reduced and made the hours of work less onerous, less long, that the shift should be from hours of work to hours of leisure, but in the end the state must concern itself with the ability of people to use and exploit their leisure time.
The facilities should be provided. That's why when somebody once asked him in World War II, "Where do you want your statue to go when you're dead as a great war leader?" he said, "I don't really want a statue. I would like there to be parks in areas where people have no parks so that those people whose leisure time cannot include walking in a park will have a park." It's interesting that when he died and there was a move to set up a statue -- the one that's in Parliament Square now -- his widow Clementine wrote to the London Times pointing out this, that her husband actually had not wanted statues but parks.
LAMB: Eight cabinet positions in his life?
GILBERT: Yes. He entered the British cabinet a long time ago in 1908 when he was still in his mid-30s, and he was last in the cabinet in 1955. I was very interested to discover quite by chance -- I met all the members of his final cabinet, and they recall -- all the ones who were still alive, which was the majority. I knew Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan and they both helped me enormously with my work. Some of their recollections are there. One of them said, "You know, we all said goodbye to him. It was the day before his official retirement from public life, and he said, 'There are two things I'd like to say to you. First of all, always remember that man is spirit. And second, never be separated from the Americans.'"
Now, he didn't make a great oratorical flight; just thes two little points. "Man is spirit," which he always believed. He always believed man had the capacity for self-improvement. He was always an optimist in the ultimate evolution of human destiny. And, "Never be separated from the Americans." The intensely practical. You know, "We are no longer a world power, not a superpower. We and the Americans share common ideals, a common heritage, common goals. Stick to them." He believed that. I found a letter which he wrote in 1916 -- he was always a man of foresight. This was after the United States had come into World War I but had not yet sent its troops over. He knew that until the American troops came, there could be no victory over Germany on the Western front.
He wrote in 1916, "Everything now, the future of the world, depends on the United States. The fact that she is a democracy, the fact that she is basically a decent country, that she doesn't intend to dominate others, that is the way the world will go forward in the 20th century, and we must make sure we're associated with her, not only so that we can be protected or get rich but because this is the side we're on."
LAMB: He was prime minister how many times, and from what years?
GILBERT: He was prime minister twice. He was first of all prime minister from 1940 to 1945. In 1940 the government had basically tried to pursue a war on a party basis -- the Conservative Party, which was in power, running the war. This was not satisfactory to the British people, and it was not good for the conduct of the war. There was a great demand from the Labour Party that they should have a place, and generally from people of no party that the war should be seen to be a united effort at the top because, after all, the workers were having to work 24-hour-a-day shifts -- multiple shifts. So he became prime minister of an all-party government, and that was his finest hour, really.
One of the things I show in the book was his enormous ability to give each person the authority he needed within his sphere of war administration. Ernest Bevin, who was a Labour man of distinction, was made minister of labor, was given somehow a free rein to organize the labor aspect because Churchill was never an anti-union man. That was an interesting aspect. But still, he brought in all parties and he brought in professionals. Then in 1945 when the war was ending, the British public said, "Let's go back to party politics. To hell with the Conservative Party that betrayed us before the war." And, of course, Churchill had always been one of those who had always cried out, "The Conservatives are betraying us!" before the war, not standing up to Hitler, not re-arming the nation, not getting on good terms with the United States.
So he played his part in his own defeat in 1945 because people gave a thumbs-down to the Conservatives. But he then became leader of the opposition and he rebuilt the Conservative Party. He brought in young men like Harold Macmillan, who was later prime minister, and R. A. Butler, who was later chancellor of the exchequer, the head of the treasury. He gave them greater authorities. For example, he gave Macmillan the brief of devising a housing policy, not unlike Jack Kemp's present housing policy. You know, you must build houses on a scale which is commensurate with the needs. And so the public responded to this. They saw that the old Churchill had somehow created a new party. They voted him back in and he became prime minister for the second time in 1951, and he remained prime minister through his 80th birthday, for another four and a half years until 1955.
One nice thing is that when he retired he said, "I'm not going to interfere. My successors have had their training; they've got their opportunity." And although he's always thought of as some sort of interfering person, he left them alone. At the time of the Suez crisis when Anthony Eden, his successor, went to war with Egypt and as you know the United States opposed Britain's action, Churchill had certain views and he didn't want to make them public. He didn't want to embarrass Eden, so he set off in his motorcar from his little country house, about four hour's drive from where Eden was at that time, and halfway he pulled into a lay-by and dictated to his secretary a little note, just a page, drove on to Eden's residence, left it at the door and returned back another four hour's drive.
LAMB: A week doesn't go by in this country where some politician, somebody making a speech somewhere quotes Winston Churchill as saying something to the effect that it was Winston Churchill that said democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form, or something like that. People are always doing something to that. What was the real story on that?
GILBERT: No, that's what he said. Of course, I share Mario Cuomo's view that everything has to be taken in context. I've been following this debate whether Cuomo should declare himself or not, and one of the papers quoted him, exactly 30 days ago when I began my trip trying to help my book on its way, and he said, "Everything has to work in its context, has to be weighed and studied in its context." I understood exactly what he meant because what Churchill was really saying was, you are flirting with fascism, you are flirting with communism. Another one is flirting with some extreme right or extreme left view, but when all is said and done, democracy for all its faults is the only way forward. And he believed this. As I said when you asked me earlier, his life was spent in Parliament and he was always prepared to, first of all, bow to the wishes of Parliament and to argue its case very carefully before Parliament. One of the things that comes out in the book is that he had enormous numbers of enemies, enormous setbacks. It's not a study in failure because I don't believe Churchill was a failure, and certainly his ideas weren't failures, but it's a study of setbacks and blows. Not only the physical blow -- he was squashed flat on Fifth Avenue and 86th Street in 1931; I mean, almost into a pancake and nobody thought he would survive -- but the blows of defeat, the blows of Parliament turning against him, the blows of the government refusing to follow his lead and his incredible resilience in bouncing back. It's one of the features of the book.
Even as a school kid he was being accused of things which he hadn't done and was having to defend himself. Recently I read in the paper that Vice President Quayle was being accused of some involvement in drugs and drug trafficking, and I wanted to write to him and say, "Look, don't take it tragically." When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and you know that's a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for just quite a long time.
LAMB: Why was he accused of buggery, and what it is?
GILBERT: You don't know what buggery is?
LAMB: Define it, please.
GILBERT: Oh, dear. Sorry, I thought the world would -- buggery is what used to be called "an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type," is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British paper. You don't know what buggery is? It's a very nasty thing which men can do to each other.
LAMB: Who accused him of it?
GILBERT: He was accused by a fellow cadet at Sandhurst who had a grievance against Churchill. Churchill was very successful. He was a very successful map-maker, he was a very successful horse rider, and somehow this young man understood that if you make an accusation against Winston Churchill -- even the 20-year-old; energetic, ambitious, appearing everywhere, views on everything -- a nasty accusation could stick.
Enough people would say, "Hm-m. Perhaps there's something to it. Perhaps this man is a deviate. Perhaps he is a bugger." Churchill had to bring a libel action, which he won, and it was the first of, I suppose, 30 libel actions in his career which he had to bring against this sort of charge. You know, he once escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in South Africa as a young man, got over the wall, and his political enemies said, "Oh, he didn't really escape. He had given his parole. He had promised that he would behave and he was going to be let out, and then just as a show-off, knowing that he was going to be let out, he broke his parole and jumped over the wall." This was untrue. I went to South Africa and I found the actual prison authority's correspondence in which it's clear that they refused to give him any special treatment, that they said he would "be held here even more carefully guarded than the other prisoners because he is a troublemaker. He'll write about the war," and so on. And he really did have to jump over the wall. He had a very extraordinary series of very narrow escapes with death before he got back to England, and, of course, as an escapee he was a hero and that's what propelled him into Parliament -- a young man who had jumped over the wall.
LAMB: You told us when we started this that this picture was new and that you found it in Canada.
LAMB: Anything else new in this volume that you didn't have in your other eight?
GILBERT: You know, there is probably something new on every page. It was my ambition that you would open the book anywhere and read a page and say halfway down, "I never knew that. That is new." Oh, there are all sorts of things, like the letter which he wrote when he escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp which he left under his pillow. The grandson of the prison commandant, gave it to me in Pretoria. He came to see me in Pretoria and said, "By the way, we have this letter."
And so, it's full of lovely new things and full of little aspects of history which perhaps have been neglected and forgotten. And also his humor and his all-aroundness. You mentioned his painting. He wasn't an obsessive man about politics. He was obsessive about right and wrong, but right and wrong in the wider sense. Even fairness in the family. He made sure, for example, that when he went abroad to his conferences that one child went to one -- Randolph went to one and he'd asked his daughter Sarah to another. He was fiercely fair. He hated anything which smacked of unfairness, of social unfairness, political unfairness and, of course, international unfairness. The evil of totalitarianism, that was his great enemy.
He never compromised with evil, though he understood that sometimes your country could be so weak that there was nothing you could do and you had to see things which you believed in blotted out. That's what happened, of course, at the Yalta Conference where he fought so hard and, incidentally, Roosevelt did not betray the democracy as some Americans have been taught. Both, in a way, and their starts fought so hard for a democratic Poland, but the Red Army had already occupied Poland and there was no way in which they could make war on Stalin. Therefore, the fait accompli was there.
What I found and put in this book was that Churchill wanted to hold the Yalta Conference before the Red Army had overrun Eastern Europe when you still could have some sort of argument and bargaining. And, of course, we still had your armies to direct in particular directions. Of course Yalta was something that came up later. He proposed Jerusalem as the site of the conference. Why? Because Roosevelt, who could only travel by ship, could go all the way to Haifa port on the Quincy, and because Stalin, who would only travel by train, could go from Moscow to Jerusalem by train in those days, and Churchill even sent him the railway route and, as it were, the timetable. And Churchill, who was older and sicker than both of them, in a curious way, would fly. But they turned down the Jerusalem conference. Stalin said he didn't want to leave Russia, and Roosevelt said he couldn't leave the United States because, of course, he had the elections coming up. October was very close to November. It may be that the Jerusalem conference would have done what Yalta couldn't do. But the ifs of history are not for me, they're for the novelist who comes along afterwards.
LAMB: Anything about him you didn't like?
GILBERT: Well, you know, I wasn't in the business of like or dislike. Sometimes I read things of his which I felt, oh dear, I wouldn't have said that or I wouldn't have done that. And sometimes I read things and I said, goodness me, how wise, how extraordinary. But I felt my job wasn't to impose that judgment on the reader. I had to say to the reader, to you, this is what he really stood for; this is what he really did, what he really said. You may like it or you may not like it. I mean, one very clear example: He believed that Britain should relinquish Southern Ireland, Catholic Ireland, and establish -- and he negotiated; he established himself -- the Irish Free State. He brought in the Irish Free State bill, an independent, Catholic government in Dublin which exists to this day.
Now, many British Conservatives regarded that as the thin end of the wake. You know, this was the heartland of the British Empire. To give up Dublin? What will he give up next, Windsor Castle? So, if you were a British Conservative with that perspective on Ireland, you would find that a very distressing chapter. For example, he wanted the Jews to have a national home and a state, and he believed that arrangements should be made so that the Jews could become a majority even if Arabs had to become a minority, and for that reason persuaded Roosevelt to exclude Palestine from the terms of the Atlantic Charter which would have given one man one vote in 1945 and meant an Arab majority. He said, "No. I'm committed to a Jewish majority." Now, many people find that offensive and even racist. In fact, I even read one American biographer who called him racist because of this sort of attitude. But that's for you to decide. It will depend on your perspective and your view of events. Was he an interferer? That's something which people say. "Well, it's very distressing how he interfered."
Then I found an example of his interference. In 1921 he said to the British government in Baghdad, "We ought to establish an independent homeland for the Kurds in northern Iraq because one day a government in Iraq might come into being which will persecute them." Well, his advisers said, "This is interference." This is when a biographer will say, "Look at that, bad news." They wrote him a letter and they said, "We're not prepared to do this because Britain will always be able to exercise a restraining influence in Baghdad." Well, they were wrong. We now know they were wrong. But if you were reading it from the perspective of a civil servant or an administrator, it would be one more example of this unpleasant feature of always interfering, always knowing better.
LAMB: He lived to be 90. Did he smoke cigars every day?
GILBERT: He lit cigars every day. He didn't always smoke them.
LAMB: Did he drink a lot?
GILBERT: In moderation. He liked nice wine, good wine. I can strongly recommend you to some of the wines he liked. But if you were to drink his whiskey and water, you would say, "Why hasn't someone put some whiskey in this water?"
LAMB: Did he eat a lot of red meat?
GILBERT: Constantly. He loved red meat. On one occasion when he was coming from Ottawa to Washington he was served an enormous American steak on the train. He said, "I'm not a cannibal." He couldn't understand so much red meat. But he loved food. He was a great eater. He could sometimes eat a whole roast chicken for breakfast. He had an insatiable appetite. He loved good food. He loved what he called an important pudding. If he were given a dessert which was nothing much to it, he'd say, "This pudding has no theme." He liked it to be important. He had a voracious appetite. He enjoyed every aspect of life to the full.
LAMB: Did he sleep a lot?
GILBERT: Yes, he was a good sleeper. He read an enormous amount. You know, he was almost the only person I've come across -- I don't know what the president of the United States does; it would be interesting to know -- but before he went to bed he arranged for all the newspapers, which were all published in our country at about midnight, to get all the newspapers and he read all the newspapers. Didn't just read the London Times.
He read the Times and the Guardian and the News Chronicle and the popular papers and the mass circulation papers and even the communist paper. He only cut out the communist paper when he was so hard up that his wife said, "Darling, we must cut down on the papers. We haven't got enough money." Then he reluctantly took out the communist paper and one or two others. But he read all the papers, and he read them and he absorbed them. Anything in them that he found that smacked of -- that he didn't like or that caught some spark of his imagination, he would follow it up. He would call in a shorthand writer and dictate something. Even ministers were often surprised in the morning to get a minute from him saying, "I see in the papers that your department has done" this or that. "Pray tell me why." He would say, "Pray tell me." They were known as his prayers, and God help the minister who didn't have an answer or who couldn't find somebody to give an answer.
LAMB: Was he faithful to his wife?
GILBERT: He was absolutely faithful to her. He adored his wife and he was faithful. He was a very honest man. He had very high moral standards, and people understood that. I found, and I told the story once or twice in the book, that when other ministers, even of the opposition party, were in some trouble of the sort nowadays that, of course, would make the headlines -- sex or financial -- they would go to him. They knew that he would somehow give them good and disinterested advice and would be totally discreet and would never tell anybody. Now, that's an extraordinary thing. I've always felt that tells you something of his qualities. It's not Winston Churchill the war leader or the monolith or the man with the frown. It's the man to whom people who were even his opponents went for advice and guidance.
He was a very good guide, and he had various little standard things. If someone came to him and said, "I don't know whether to do this or not." This example I should not mention in the Cuomo context, but he used to say, "When you're in doubt as to whether to lay an egg or not, don't." In other words, if something is really bugging you, you're not sure whether you should do it or not, don't do it. He had these various little rules of thumb.
LAMB: The last question: What is Martin Gilbert going to do for the rest of his life?
GILBERT: Well, Martin Gilbert, I know him quite well. He's got a few ideas. He's going to finish Churchill's wartime documents, which will be a five- volume set, and then he's embarking upon a three-volume history of the 20th century and he hopes that will see him out to the end of the century.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called Churchill: A Life by his official biographer Martin Gilbert. Thank you very much for joining us.
GILBERT: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1991. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.